With the 2016 holiday season having now wrapped up, Tinseltown is preparing for its most favorite season of all: awards season. Hollywood loves nothing more than worshipping itself, which is why film and television viewers across the nation will see an increasing amount of “for your consideration” and “best picture of the year” adverts in the months of January and February.
Betting pools across the nation will form, driven by the tabloid-fueled gossip about which movie is getting the most buzz leading up to award ceremonies like the Golden Globes and especially the Oscars, also known as the Academy Awards. Throughout this time, the opinion of movie critics and industry insiders is treated like something in between prophecy and gospel, which results in the hot-button films being treated like pieces of divine art — rather than products that are being aggressively marketed by profit-driven movie studios. There are plenty of interesting movies in the world being released at the end of 2016 and the start of 2017, and it can be hard to cut through the hype to find the true gems that are worth a trip to the local megaplex (or, eventually, the local Redbox stall). Here at Digital Recourse, we’ve pushed aside the awards-season spin of the movie industry to draw your attention to some films that, based on their artistic pedigrees, intriguing plots, and fascinating concepts, are likely to make for a rewarding cinematic experience.
Below you’ll find a collection of films from the end of 2016, the start of 2017, and the rest of the year to come. Some of these films are already screening at theaters across the world, while others can only be speculated about until their release dates. Whether you’re catching these movies in theatres or on streaming services like Netflix or HBO Go, they’re all bound to lead to plenty of post-movie discussion.
The Awards Season Flicks: What’s Out Now
La La Land (dir. Damien Chazelle)
When its trailer was first released in mid-2016, La La Land looked a lot like another Hollywood nostalgia project in the vein of The Artist. The bright primary colors of the retro outfits worn by the film’s characters and, of course, the fact that it’s a movie musical — a genre that now is usually only seen in animated Disney features — practically scream, “They don’t make movies like this anymore!” While La La Land does have that undeniable, self-obsessed quality that characterizes so many movies about performance in Hollywood, in the hands of Damien Chazelle, responsible for the outstanding 2014 film Whiplash, this movie rises above basic glamorization of Hollywood.
As a young couple both looking to achieve their dreams in Los Angeles (the eponymous La La Land), Ryan Gosling (playing a jazz pianist) and Emma Stone (playing an actress) add to the fantastic chemistry they built up in previous movies like Crazy Stupid Love and Gangster Squad. Their charm, combined with Chazelle’s stunning direction and a swanky score by Justin Hurwitz, makes for a feature that’s unabashedly romantic and optimistic, and certainly one of the best feature films of 2016. (Trailer)
Arrival (dir. Denis Villenueve)
From out of nowhere, alien pods (see the picture above) descend to Earth. They hover above the ground. What they want is unclear; past alien movies would lead audiences to think that alien invasions necessarily pose a threat, perhaps even total global annihilation. But the hero of arrival is no gun-toting, masculine ass-kicker out to vanquish the aliens; in Denis Villenueve’s Arrival (based on a short story by Ted Chiang), the hope of Earth rests in the hands of Louise Banks, an academic linguist.
She is recruited by the United States government to decipher the language of the aliens, which consists of elaborate circle symbols made of a swirly black ink and low drone sounds. Banks’ pursuit of interstellar connection results in the most unlikely of alien films: one where there is no “alien invasion,” but rather an attempt at reconciliation that tests the worst aspects of humanity. Adams is quietly brilliant as Banks, and Villenueve’s direction is sheer genius, continuing a streak of films (Prisoners, Enemy) that has made him one of the best living directors. (Trailer)
Moonlight (dir. Barry Jenkins)
Based on Tarell Alvin McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, Moonlight became an instant critical sensation upon its release, and it looks to be a lock for several Oscar nominations, following the six nods it received at the Golden Globes. The story of Moonlight follows the development of a young boy, which is broken down into three chapters: “Little,” “Chiron,” and “Black.” Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes each play the same character at those respective stages of development, tracking the life of the boy as he wrestles with issues of identity, family, and sexuality, among many others.
Moonlight does not aim at universal proclamations of what blackness is; director and screenwriter Barry Jenkins keeps the story rooted in the experience of the protagonist’s maturation. But in how deftly it explores the multilayered themes that weave in and out of Little/Chiron/Black’s story, Moonlight is able to delicately walk the tightrope between the individual and the universal. Add to that some of the most stunning cinemaphotography in recent years (courtesy of James Laxton), and you’ve got one must-see film. (Trailer)
After the Hype: What’s Soon to Come
Star Wars Episode VIII (dir. Rian Johnson)
One’s opinion of J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens likely hinges on how effective one perceives the frequent allusions and homages to A New Hope, the Star Wars film that started it all. Either Abrams’ callbacks to Episode IV are a playful meta-commentary on the development of the Star Wars narrative, or it is cheap fan service that placates those who became downtrodden on the series after the middling prequels (episodes I-III). Luckily, whatever one’s view of Abrams’ entry into the series, Episode VIII is a promising popcorn flick, particularly due to the new director at the helm, Rian Johnson.
With films like Brick, The Brothers Bloom, and Looper (in addition to some of the best episodes of Breaking Bad), Johnson established himself as a director who can toy with genre conventions and craft intricate plots — two things perfectly suited to the Star Wars series. Little is known about the plot of Episode VIII at this point, other than that it picks up right after the cliffhanger ending of Episode VII. But the return of Luke Skywalker should be cause for excitement for any Star Wars fan, and in the capable hands of a fine cast and a sharp director this latest installment of Star Wars should do just fine, and maybe even more than that. (Trailer)
King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (dir. Guy Ritchie)
Notice that the title of this article uses the phrase “most interesting,” not “the best,” and while Guy Ritchie’s film pedigree isn’t perfect, it is at the very least interesting, a trend likely to continue with his take on the King Arthur legend. There is already a gritty reboot of Arthur lore (Antoine Fuqua’s highly underrated King Arthur  with Clive Owen), but Ritchie’s will undoubtedly be a different kind of gritty.
From what the trailers reveal, it seems that Ritchie is taking the controversial interpretation of the Arthur legend that involves the gruff vocal cadence of London gangsters (the kind seen in his films Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels and Snatch) and bare-knuckle boxing, all strung together with his music video-style editing. What historical text Ritchie is cribbing from, I’m not sure, but even if Legend of the Sword flops like Spirited Away did back in the mid-2000s, it should at least be interesting. It goes without saying that anyone looking for historical authenticity should probably seek out a better film, but you don’t go to a Guy Ritchie movie for accuracy. You go to see people get punched. (Trailer)
Dunkirk (dir. Christopher Nolan)
Ever since the global phenomenon that is The Dark Knight was unleashed into the world back in 2008, Christopher Nolan has made a name for himself as “the thinking man’s action director.” From the theory of relativity-driven sci-fi of Interstellar to the Cartesian dream-games of Inception, Nolan likes his plots to be bendy and unpredictable just as much as he likes his cinemaphotography to be rendered in steely greys and chilly blues. In his rise to directorial fame Nolan has put out some truly fantastic works of cinema (The Prestige, The Dark Knight), films that deliver on the promise of his breakthrough sophomore film Memento.
Yet through that time the flaws in Nolan’s filmmaking have become evident, especially on the dialogue front: exposition can be important to helping unravel a complicated plot for an audience, but too often Nolan’s characters sound like they’re reading the storyboard notes for Nolan’s scripts, a fact Inception is especially guilty of. Dunkirk looks like a potential way around Nolan’s lapses into over-explanation. Based on the only trailer released for the movie so far, Dunkirk looks like a striking recounting of the Dunkirk evacuation in World War II; Nolan here teams up with Hoyte von Hoytema, the cinemaphotographer who made Interstellar such a visual spectacle. With such an intriguing historical narrative to tell, Nolan will hopefully put out a film whose script is as rich as the visuals. (Trailer)